Everybody thinks they can write. Being good at writing though, takes a lot more time, effort and practice than you might at first think.
I’ve worked here at Gloo for just over a month now and I’ve already learned a lot about what makes a good piece of copy. Here are the five cardinal sins that make copywriters, like myself, cringe:
1. Bad grammar
This is probably the number one pet peeve for writers and probably deserves a whole blog of its own. There’s no excuse for bad grammar. Not only does it make the writer seem a little stupid, it can seriously undermine everything they’re trying to say. Good grammar largely goes unnoticed but bad grammar screams out all sorts of negative messages to the reader. If a business cuts corners with grammar, will it do the same with business plans too? Paying attention to the little details gives the right message.
Jargon is specialised language that most people don’t understand. There is a place for it, but you need to know your audience—and generally keep it simple. The American sitcom, Friends, hits this one on the nail when Joey uses a thesaurus to describe his two best friends in a letter. What he wanted to say was: “They’re warm, nice people with big hearts.” What he actually said was: “They’re humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”
Clearly, you would never use ridiculous language like this in that context, but it’s so common to see someone write pompously in order to make themselves sound clever. It’s funny when jargon is used for a comedic purpose but when you are writing for a business audience, you want your message to be clear, simple and unambiguous. It’s all about knowing your audience and knowing what they expect to hear.
3. Passive voice
Passive voice is often used (see what I did there?) because it seems more formal than active voice. Passive structures have the option to leave out the subject of the verb—leaving the “doer” to be left to the reader’s imagination. Business audiences always want to know who is doing what, so copywriters must be absolutely clear in their writing—with as little guesswork as possible. Writers should avoid vagueness at all costs and yet they use passive voice everywhere—sometimes without even noticing.
4. Badly flowing sentences
This is an example of some copy I recently found in the user guide for a Sony Vaio laptop:
USB ports that are compliant with the USB 3.0 standard do not support recovery with a USB flash drive that is compliant with the USB 3.0 standard. On models without the USB 2.0 standard, be sure to create Recovery Media using the USB flash drive that is not compliant with the USB 3.0 standard. (Except for SV111)
I bet I stopped reading before you did. Aside from the jargon—see point one—the copy mentions “USB” seven times in 57 words. In addition, each sentence has more than 25 words making the message infinitely harder to digest. As a rule, it’s best not to write sentences that are longer than 25 words—especially not two together.
5. Unnecessary Capitalisations
Uppercase letters should be reserved for the beginning of sentences and proper nouns only. Capitals are not supposed to be used to highlight what the writer thinks are important words in a sentence. Just because something might sound official doesn’t mean it needs the blessing of an enlarged first letter.
It’s natural for copywriters to be sticklers for good English. For example, I now sprout a grey hair whenever I see a piece of badly written text on a billboard or on the side of a bus. Copywriters need to be creative and interesting in their writing—but adhere to strict and often self-imposed rules. So, next time you see a piece of copy that makes you smile, you’ll know how much hard work a writer somewhere behind a desk has put into it.
Posted by John on 28 January 2013